I woke up this morning and my room was about 40 degrees, give or take. I was wearing a tee shirt fleece top, a wool scarf, fleece pants, a long wool scarf wrapped around my neck and a hunter’s cap—this was all under a down blanket, two top sheets and a fleece blanket. As I write, I’m wearing same tee shirt, fleece top, and cap, but now augmented by a heavy wool sweater, thermal underwear and, in a tribute to rock stardom, leather pants. As long as a stay in front of the space heater, I seem to be able to say warm (excepting my fingers, which are still slightly chilled).
I shan’t bore the reader with tales of how a nice suburban boy arrived at such an arctic place. It’s part of my journey—but that could be said about everything that happens in my life.
What I’m primarily interested in is my reaction and my response to the situation. To illustrate the difference between reaction and response, I’ll recall a Stephen Covey quote: “character is what happens between stimulus and response.” In my case, the stimulus is the cold, my response is something I’m working out.
First off, as much as I love and agree with Mr. Covey’s sentiment, I feel it necessary to tease apart the words “reaction” and “response.” Let’s look at the etymological roots of both words.
React is an easy one for a junior linguist like me: it simply means to act again. It comes from the same Medieval Latin word, react, meaning, “done again”. To me, a reaction is spontaneous, devoid of conscious deliberation as to why I am acting in such a way. The “re” part of react is suggestive that this unconscious action was birthed in that past. When I was a child, I was potty trained. I was trained to go to the toilet when I had to pee or poop. Now, when I feel the urge to defecate (stimulus), my reaction is to go to the bathroom. There’s little deliberation about why this action is the optimal one; it’s just something I do. Many reactions, like this one, are completely appropriate.
To word “respond,” on the other hand, is derived from Old French responder, or “to answer.” It is in the same category as the English word ponder, whose roots are the Old French ponderer, meaning “to consider” and from the Latin ponderare, to “weigh, reflect on”. When we respond to something, it is something considered, weighed, and reflected upon.
Most of our lives are dominated by reaction. We don’t think about why the things we experience make us feel the way that they do. In reaction mode, we use the past as the primary referent for the present. “I acted this way the last time, so I’ll try it again perhaps.” A response is something considered. It’s an answer to a question. Whereas a reaction dictates a specific answer—“this is the answer because this is the way it was done before—a response is a conscious and deliberate answer—“this is the best answer because I’ve reflected and considered the many different ways to answer this question. This is my best answer.”
As I lay in bed this morning, I thought, what is my best answer to this cold question?
What I’ve struggled to do throughout the last year is to see what in my life is reaction versus response. The easy answer: almost everything that causes me suffering is a reaction. My reactive answer is based on a referent in the past. This was painful then, so it is painful again. This was pleasurable, so it is pleasurable again. Sometimes, my answers are based on hearsay—I’m taking someone else’s answer for truth because I’ve yet to experience this situation. For example, my reaction to tigers is fear because I heard they are dangerous animals.
But if I were able to consciously respond to every stimulus in my life, why wouldn’t I choose to interpret positively? (This is assuming, correctly, that I want to live a happy life.)
I believe in free will and, as such, believe that I can choose to consciously respond to every and any situation I’m confronted with. This morning it was a frigid bedroom.
The reactive part of me, said, “this is fucked. You’re 33 years old and you live in a dilapidated, unheated place. Grow-the-hell up.” Now this reaction might strike some as right on the money, but it doesn’t give me: A. any help in dealing with the situation, or B. room for happiness in the situation as it exists.
There is no right answer, only the ones we choose. A cold apartment, me being single, marginally employed, in my mid-thirties, being tall, educated, all of the interpretations and designation about how reality really is don’t mean anything aside from what I make them mean.
So today, I choose to feel fortunate. I feel fortunate that I have a roof over my head that, while cold, is peaceful, spacious and in a city I adore. I am fortunate because I didn’t give away my funky ass leather pants. I am fortunate because I have the time and mental wherewithal to choose how to respond to this situation.
Why do I respond these ways? Because it’s the best response I can come up with. And it’s easier than reacting with hostility toward my station in life.
I also respond by putting on more layers. For millions of years, humans dawned additional layers to guard from the cold. But modern civilization has decided the appropriate answer to a cold home is more heat; we make sure every nook and cranny we might inhabit in our living space is comfortable, rather than protecting ourselves and heating a localized area we inhabit. As the Buddhist master Shantideva said, “It’s easier to wear shoes than it is to cover the earth with leather.” This truism applies to garments and emotional health alike. It’s easier to own our responses to every situation (wearing shoes) than it is to manufacture a world consisting solely of things we expect we’ll react positively to (covering the world with leather).
Again, my answer isn’t right. It just serves me. Feeling shitty about the cold doesn’t.